The 2021-22 NBA season is out of office on Christmas Eve, taking some time to celebrate the holiday before a monster, five-game slate on Christmas Day. So, on this day without games, let’s celebrate some enjoyable developments and occurrences from the first two months.
Anfernee Simons’ emergence
Back-to-back stinkers (11 points on 3-for-18 shooting) dampens some of the luster around Simons’ breakout, but the fourth-year guard is a notably more comfortable and capable creator with the ball in his hands this season.
Averaging a career-high 12.1 points on 55.4 percent true shooting, Simons has displayed serious shot-making chops and newfound moxie when operating in ball-screens. After shooting just 44.3 percent on twos during his first three seasons, he’s up to 48.6 percent this year. That’s not a sterling mark, but it’s a sizable uptick and emblematic of his growth.
Tough shooting game last night, but Anfernee Simons has looked very good this year. This is filthy pic.twitter.com/gycsoSxpmq
— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) November 11, 2021
Previously, Simons was routinely timid and ineffective venturing inside the arc. Now, he’s much more composed and confident, and understands how to get the spots he desires. He no longer appears as though his only means of scoring is a catch-and-shoot triple. Knocking those down at a 44.6 percent clip this season, they remain quite the reliable source of offense, yet he’s also expanded his arsenal to provide secondary handling and creation.
The Anfernee Simons Leap looks very legit. His approach as an interior scorer has improved a ton, 14 points on 65% TS (51-42-100 split) and 62% on 2s pic.twitter.com/MfxOSOuv7M
— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) November 5, 2021
Portland’s season has been rather underwhelming, but Simons’ development in a contract year is a bright spot for him and the team.
D’Angelo Russell, defensive anchor
Before a recent slide, due in large part to injuries and COVID-related absences, the Minnesota Timberwolves were fielding a top-10 defense. A number of players and factors are responsible.
Jarred Vanderbilt and Jaden McDaniels have been awesome. Patrick Beverley’s arrival has been crucial. Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns have made strides. Head coach Chris Finch employs impactful, creative schemes.
One reason, however, is probably most surprising and equally paramount: D’Angelo Russell’s off-ball awareness and general communication. He’s constantly arranging his teammates on where to be, while simultaneously offering steady contributions as a helper with stuff like this:
D'Angelo Russell deserves some praise for his defense this year, definitely feel like he's improved there.
Takes away the roll in help, then steps up to block the floater: pic.twitter.com/YeFW3cwvTc
— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) December 2, 2021
D'Angelo Russell, the architect behind a top-8 defense pic.twitter.com/fWxTxkkBtx
— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) December 20, 2021
Because of inflexibility and poor lateral quickness, Russell struggles navigating screens and containing ball-handlers at the point-of-attack. So, Finch reduces his workload in those roles and he’s excelling off the ball.
His minus-0.2 Defensive Estimated Plus-Minus is the second-best mark of his career and just the second time he’s ranked outside of the bottom 25th percentile. The Timberwolves’ defense is 12 points better with him on the floor (101.2 vs. 113.2 defensive rating).
Those numbers aren’t a fluke. Russell’s defense has been legitimately good and deployed in an effective way. It’s a reason why Minnesota is fighting for a play-in berth — or, if they get lucky, just a straight-up playoff spot — these days.
Kemba Walker’s recent scorchers
Right around Thanksgiving, New York Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau opted to remove starting point guard Kemba Walker from the rotation. Not merely a demotion to the second unit, an outright benching. Walker watched from the sidelines for 10 consecutive games and didn’t play a minute.
While I wouldn’t have done it, the move was understandable, given New York’s bevy of scoring guards available. Walker was struggling mightily to create and score inside the arc, and his defense wasn’t cutting it either.
Over the past three games, absences from Immanuel Quickley, RJ Barrett, and Derrick Rose have led to Walker returning to the starting lineup and absolutely cooking opponents to the tune of 31-8-5 on 60.9 percent true shooting. The run’s been punctuated by a 44-bomb against the Washington Wizards on Thursday evening, a flurry of buckets that surely seemed to delight the veteran guard.
Watching Kemba have a blast doing his thing last night is simply blissful, man. Can tell how much it means to him. pic.twitter.com/V6PuO06Gud
— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) December 24, 2021
Walker is a New York native and handled the benching basically as well as anyone could. When opportunity arose, he seized it and let the joy of the game overtake him. Thursday’s experience seemingly carried notoriety and his passion was evident. Walker’s long been a marvel to watch, both for his torrid pull-up shooting and blissful demeanor. This recent stretch is no different.
Aaron Gordon’s two-way play
The Denver Nuggets’ 2021-22 campaign has been a season from hell, apparently. Jamal Murray entered the year sidelined with a torn ACL, while Michael Porter Jr. and PJ Dozier are also now sidelined indefinitely with serious injuries. A team that looked like a legit title contender just eight months ago is now simply trying to make the playoffs.
One positive beyond Nikola Jokic having an historically great season: Aaron Gordon has been quite good on both ends as he continues to bring the off-ball scoring and perimeter defense the Nuggets coveted when they acquired him last season.
Virtually every night, Denver pins him to the top perimeter creator. By and large, he’s performed admirably, particularly at the point of attack and navigating screens to bother talented scorers.
Here are some examples of what I'm describing.
Big wing defender fights over the screen, help stationed around the nail to limit Ja's ability to snake the PnR, drop defender to influence/deter shots at the rim: https://t.co/WPa0pmCvHs pic.twitter.com/gy0RWOFbAx
— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) November 6, 2021
Offensively, his chemistry with Jokic as a cutter is telekinetic. Despite the absences of Murray and Porter, Gordon isn’t routinely overindulging in self-creation attempts, even amid Denver’s vastly undermanned attack.
He’s shooting a career-high 74 percent at the rim (93rd percentile) and has shown faculty as a trusty slasher. His 59.9 percent true shooting is 4.4 points above league average, the best number of his career. If Murray and Porter return as the versions they were last season, this team is going to be tremendously good and Gordon’s two-way profile will be vital to that.